Jordan Mechner’s name is synonymous with his creation, Prince of Persia. After a series of popular video games, a graphic novel and a coming-soon motion picture, the property just keeps growing. But Mechner still has other stories he wants to tell.
Solomon’s Thieves is one of those stories. Set during the persecution of the Knights Templar in 14th century France, Solomon’s Thieves is part history, part heist tale, part struggle of a brotherhood to survive. The first book (of a trilogy) ships in May from First Second.
Martin, the protagonist of Solomon’s Thieves, believes the ideals of the Knights Templar, even while many of his colleagues take advantage of their position. When the King of France convinces the Pope to sell out the Knights, Martin and his band go on the run, formulating a grand scheme to seize a treasure and evade their pursuers.
Joining Mechner for Solomon’s Thieves are his collaborators on the 2007 Prince of Persia graphic novel, the husband-wife illustrating team LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland. Newsarama spoke to the creative trio, Mechner, Pham and Puvilland about creating the trilogy, scheduling around the PoP film, and the logistics of married couples working together.
Newsarama: Is there a particular draw to the medieval or pre- industrial setting for you? This and Prince of Persia are both set in relative antiquity.
Jordan Mechner: I find the Middle Ages a perfect setting for swashbuckling adventure stories – not just because you've got swords and horses and castles, but also because there’s a warmth and humanity to it that I think we miss today. People then lived closer to the earth, and to each other. It was really the beginning of our modern era.
Nrama: You set up two big story lines in Solomon’s Thieves: the mysterious inquisition against the Templar Knights, and the romantic history between Martin and Isabelle. How do these plots complement one another?
Mechner: The fall of the Knights Templar is a gripping piece of history, one that I think is more relevant than ever today. It was very important to me to tell that story accurately, but I approached it obliquely by showing the impact of those grand and terrible events on particular characters we care about. My role model is Alexander Dumas (author of ) – to me, he’s the all-time master at combining history, romance and unforgettable characters into a ripping yarn.
Nrama: I liked in the afterword where you talked about finding the real history of the Knights more interesting than the over-used idea of a secret sect of theirs still operating today (you mention and in the book’s afterword; I thought of Indiana Jones’ ). As Solomon’s Thieves is grounded in actual history, how closely do you keep to those events, and how much liberty do you give yourself in crafting this fiction?
Mechner: As someone who loves history as much as I love storytelling, I feel the best research is invisible. Solomon’s Thieves is such a entertaining ride that I think readers would be surprised to learn how much of it is historically accurate. In some cases I used dialogue directly from the medieval court transcripts.
Nrama: Your protagonist Martin hasn’t always been the most virtuous fellow, but he seems to have clear boundaries. Yet he seems to consistently be in with a crowd of Templars who aren’t the best influences for him. How does that tension and temptation inform the character?
Mechner: In the story of the Templars I found that I identified most strongly not with the leaders, the famous historical figures, but with the ordinary rank and file. These were guys who joined because they yearned to be heroes – they wanted to fulfill an ideal of nobility, like Western gunslingers and Japanese samurai – but they had to struggle with the same human temptations as all of us.
Nrama: Was it difficult to show Martin’s roguishness while still staying true to the more socially conservative era?
Mechner: There's a misconception about the Middle Ages that people were more innocent or saintly than they really were. Umberto Eco has said that to get an idea of daily life, look at what's forbidden, because the things authorities find it necessary to forbid are the things people are actually doing. Reading between the lines of the Templar rule book gave me lots of ideas of what kind of transgressions Martin and his buddies might have been tempted into.
Nrama: You’re working in video games and film; what makes comics the right venue for this story?
Mechner: Hollywood and video games sometimes sacrifice historical accuracy, either to meet the demands of genre conventions, compressed narrative pacing, or production constraints. A great thing about graphic novels is that the writer and artists have complete control over what goes on the page, and so LeUyen and Alex and I were able to bring history to life in a way that’s entertaining but also accurate and deep.
Nrama: Can you tease what’s next for Martin and his merry band in the sequel? Will the release of the Prince of Persia film cause any delays in the upcoming installments?
Mechner: No worries; there are no delays due to Prince of Persia. The artists and I are working full steam ahead on Book Two and hope it will be published early next year. Here's your teaser: Book One is the first act in a story that I think of as a 14th century Ocean's Eleven – the story of a gang of underdogs that comes together to pull off the greatest heist of medieval times.
Nrama: Alex and LeUyen, How soon after the Prince of Persia graphic novel did Jordan come to you with another story he wanted to work on? How early on did he mention that it would be a trilogy?
LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland: I think we finished Prince of Persia mid-September 2007. Our son Leo was born on the 23rd of the same month and Jordan sent us an early draft for Solomon's Thieves in November if I remember right. From the beginning he pitched the project as a trilogy, so we knew what we were in for…Uyen and I talked about it amongst ourselves and we agreed to do it in January 2008, the same day we met Jordan for the first time in person.
Nrama: Although this story requires certain skills relative to Prince, the antiquated atmosphere and horses, the architecture and clothing is very different than Prince’s Mideast setting. How much research did this story require?
Pham & Puvilland: There was a good deal of research but it was a lot easier than for PoP because unlike Persia of the 9th century, France in the 14th century is very well documented. Also, as Alex is French, it was very easy for him to access any kind of local references. There are some amazing books out there which describe in detail many aspects of the medieval life. All that being said, at the end of the day, we had to make sure all that research work doesn't get in the way of the story. We cheated a lot of elements in or out of the book for that reason. At some point you develop a sense of what feels rights for the script and what doesn’t.
Nrama: LeUyen, this is your second graphic novel, in addition to your children’s book work. How does this compare to that illustration work?
Pham & Puvilland: It’s a very different process. To begin with, working on comics is a very collaborative effort, the product of many people brainstorming and coming together to make a story work. In children’s book work, the artist and the writer are often kept separated, with the editor as a mediator between the two, to make sure that one’s creative process doesn’t infringe upon the other’s. It’s rare when there is actual collaboration between the artist and writer. Also, in comics, the narrative is very different – it’s likened to movies and storyboarding, with a continuity of characters actions and behaviors from page to page, over a very lengthy extent. There’s much more work involved in minute acting. For children’s books, each image is usually a summary of the entirety of narration on that page, resulting in a single intriguing image. This is probably the greatest challenge in children’s illustration, but I’d say the comic book process is much more consuming in time.
Nrama: How has your working process evolving since Prince of Persia and over the course of Solomon’s Thieves?
Pham & Puvilland: We've had a bit more time on Solomon's Thieves than on PoP, which was done under a very tight deadline. Now we can spend more time finishing the pages. We mix the quill and the brush instead of using only the brush. PoP had a sparser look to it since so much took place in the desert or in the mountain. 80% of Solomon’s Thieves is set in Paris, which is a lot busier and offers a lot of great visual opportunities. The other difference is that we’re more involved with story this time around. Jordan has been incredibly open minded and generous with us and accepted a lot of our suggestions on the characters and plot. It is a very collaborative experience in the best sense of the term.
As far as working together as a couple, we’ve learned how to maneuver through each other’s space, without trampling all over it. On PoP, we had lots of disagreements, as we tried to figure out how the other person works. We took those lessons onto this project, and it’s worked out really well. It’s a bit like learning how to work a complex machine – it’s difficult to figure out in the beginning, but once it gets going, it goes great. Through this experience, we’ve gone from being a young married couple to having a baby, to raising a child. What we’ve learned from working together has carried over into our personal life as well, so in a strange way, it’s been great in helping us to figure out how to work out disagreements. Not that we’d recommend working together for every couple! But it seems to be good for us. And of course, if we didn’t work together, we’d hardly get to see each other!
Nrama: Well, besides seeing each other, what’s the best part of working on Solomon’s Thieves? Is there any part that you’d pay Jordan to take out of the script to avoid drawing it?
Pham & Puvilland: For Alex, the best part is to draw medieval Paris and all the more comedic scenes. For LeUyen, it’s to get to be a part of such a great collaboration, and to gain from the challenge of such a strenuous project.
As for the part we’d pay Jordan to take out of the script, LeUyen has been pregnant through two-going-on-three books now (the first time during Prince of Persia with her son Leo, and the second with Solomon’s Thieves 2 and 3, with their second child), so she wouldn’t mind a little less sword fighting and carnage on the days she’s feeling morning sickness. She’s also not crazy about drawing horses, which seem to overpopulate the streets of medieval Paris, in her opinion.